Scott Pruett’s furrowed brow indicates his worry about the dark clouds on the horizon. From his vantage spot at the infield of Daytona International Speedway in Florida, the veteran racing driver knows that the weather forecast can radically change the fortunes of the more than 150 drivers who’ll get behind the wheel and race over the next 24 hours.
“They all say to themselves they’ll take it steady out there,” Pruett tells me. “But when it starts they’re racing as hard as anyone.”
For those who possess the skill—and more than a little luck—to win the Rolex 24 at Daytona comes a coveted trophy: a Rolex Daytona wristwatch. (Rolex named the watch after the racetrack in 1962; in 1991 as part of a continuing sponsorship deal it named the race after itself.) Awarded only to the racers who win either overall or in class, it’s a unique totem of achievement in a world where team owners often get to enjoy the spoils more than the drivers. It’s also the only way to skip the waiting list for one of the world’s hottest wristwatches—with many dealers closing their books to new customers for the chronograph which starts in steel at $12,400.
Pruett knows the thrill of winning “The Rolex” more than most—and his watch collection stands as proof. Five of the Daytonas in his possession come from his record-equalling five overall wins—the first in 1994, the fifth in 2013. The sixth in his collection, the one currently on his wrist, is the newest. Presented the night before the 2019 edition of the race in honor of being named Grand Marshall, its steel case with black ceramic bezel sets it apart from the yellow gold and steel pieces he earned on the track.
Before drivers can allow themselves to dream of such accolades though, comes a lot of racing. Forty seven cars in four classes over 24 hours combine to create an event quite unlike typical NASCAR or Indycar fare. The size of the cast and the length of time allow several different storylines to unfold. In the early stages of the race, in the premier Daytona Prototype class, Mazda Team Joest and Acura Team Penske duke it out for the overall lead, while the Wayne Taylor Racing Cadillac of Formula 1 champion Fernando Alonso stays out of the fray. A newbie to endurance racing, like myself, might think this is the going to be the defining battle of the Rolex 24. By 7 a.m. the next day, like a Long Island grandmother, the Mazda is retired in Florida.
Further back in the pack, in the Grand Touring Daytona (GTD) class is a story for the romantics. Alex Zanardi, a championship driver in the CART series—who was plagued by some terrible cars during a stint in Formula 1—suffered a crash in 2001 that led to the amputation of both of his legs. Forced into early retirement from racing cars he took up handcycling, eventually winning two golds for Italy at the 2012 Paralympics at the age of 45 and again in Rio aged 49. At the Rolex 24 he drove a BMW M8 GTE, specially modified to take a hand control steering wheel. Despite some technical difficulties, the 52-year-old completed 18 laps for Team RLL. ⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀
Daytona Beach, Florida might seem like an odd location for a prestigious motoring event, one that can attract a blue chip European luxury brand like Rolex as a sponsor. Its shoreline of high-rise hotels and t-shirt shops is every bit the playground for college kids on spring break and Baby Boomer snowbirds. But it is that extra-long, straight and flat beach that in the 1920s and 1930s brought British automotive legends Sir Malcolm Campbell and Sir Henry Segrave to central Florida in search of the land speed record. Fifteen records were set on Daytona Beach before Utah’s Bonneville Salt Flats became the preferred location for its more consistently flat surface.
But motorsport didn’t leave Daytona. Capitalizing on the fame of the land speed records, the city asked local racer Sig Haugdahl to design a track that would run half on the beach and half on the adjacent road. The first race on the course, run in 1936 had to be abandoned three laps before its designated finish because the sand bank corners had deteriorated. But it caught the imagination of local mechanic William France, Sr. who worked with Haugdahl to hold another race in 1937. Eleven years later, France would use his experience to found the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing, better known as NASCAR.
With stock car racing outgrowing the beach, France spent two years and $3 million to build his temple to motorsport: Daytona International Speedway. It opened in 1959 and seven years later would host the first 24 Hours at Daytona, a race designed to compete in endurance and prestige with the 24 Hours of Le Mans.
The event has largely achieved that, and over the years has attracted some of the same talent who’ve plied their trade in northern France. Names like Hurley Haywood—who co-owns the record with Pruett for wins at Daytona—also won Le Mans three times; the aforementioned Fernando Alonso who won Le Mans in 2018; and actor and racer Paul Newman who achieved a class win and second overall at Le Mans and also won his class at Daytona in 1995, at the age of 70. (Newman is also the most famous wearer of the Rolex Daytona wristwatch. His personal ‘Paul Newman’ Daytona sold at auction in 2017 for $17.8 million.)
In the Wee Hours
The race settles into a rhythm as night creeps in. The adrenaline of the first few hours subsides and the pack spreads out, allowing the faster prototype class cars more room to stay out of trouble. Because the race is run in January the majority of racing happens under the blanket of darkness. The track is well lit but fatigue inevitably sets in. Maintaining concentration in the wee hours is one of the race’s biggest challenges, says Pruett. “It was my favorite part of the race,” he adds. The drivers rotate out of the car, eat, rehydrate, and try to nap in their trailers. Mechanics in the pit take every opportunity for some shuteye in their camping chairs before a crew captain jostles them awake for a tire change.
Despite the screaming engines and pervading smell of rubber and high octane race fuel a zen-like atmosphere descends over the pits. As fast as the cars drive, and however manic a tire change and refuel look on television, witnessing it in person is akin to watching a veteran chef dice an onion. Impressive in how undramatic it is. It’s what happens when you’ve done it a thousand times.
The cadence of the race seems set. Then the weather arrives.
Raindrops and Ticker Tape
For all the months of planning and millions of dollars spent, the weather in Florida can and will have its own ideas. At around 4:30 AM the rain that has been threatening to come the entire race finally arrives, and the track turns to a slick. Several cars blow through Turn 1, the high-speed corner after the Speedway’s famous banked section, losing traction and ending up in the dirt. Teams switch to their specialized wet weather tires but they provide little relief. Despite efforts by the race directors to keep cars on the track under caution, they wave the red flag shortly after 7am, forcing all drivers to the pits to wait it out.
The next seven hours are filled with frustration and false hope for the teams—and the fans, who are getting soaked in their tents in the infield. Nobody wants to say it, but it seems increasingly unlikely we’ll see any competitive racing for the rest of the day. As the race clock passes hour 23, even running the end of the race at a ceremonial pace looks unlikely to happen. The race is called at 23 hours and 54 minutes. For the first time in the 53-year history of the Rolex 24 it ends under a red flag. That doesn’t put a damper on the team’s celebrations. Denied crossing the iconic checkered flag, the winning drivers: Wayne Taylor Racing’s Fernando Alonso, Renger van der Zande, Jordan Taylor, and Kamui Kobayashi embrace each other, their pit crew, and the team leadership.
They parade into Victory Lane hanging out of their #10 Cadillac, waving their Spanish, Dutch, U.S., and Japanese flags. Ticker tape is shot from cannons and collects in the puddles forming on the checkered floor.
The trophy is presented and the drivers receive their watches. It’s easy to imagine a millionaire two-time Formula 1 champion like Alonso, who has 32 Grand Prix wins under his belt, viewing the watch as another piece of ephemera picked up on a decorated career. But away from the cameras, I catch Alonso, his teammates, and the other drivers who won in the other classes admiring their steel and gold chronograph in that famous green box. “Winner” engraved on the back. When you can buy almost any watch on the planet, it’s the ones you can’t that mean the most.